Eighty percent of a child's brain development takes place in the first year of life. Missing that window of opportunity -- particularly because a child has a mental delay -- can impact the rest of his or her life.
But starting out slow doesn't have to impact a child's quality of life or long-term learning ability. Both the state and federal government recognize every child's right to learn and Part C -- a program under the Colorado Department of Education -- provides the funding and services needed for children birth to age three to identify delays and to help move past them.
"We oversee services for special needs babies," said Kathy Northcutt, Part C coordinator for Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Routt counties. "If they're eligible, all services are free."
In some cases recognizing a delay is easy -- when a child is diagnosed with Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome or is extremely premature.
Those children automatically qualify for services under Part C.
"The exciting part to me is that the whole idea is that we want kids to be caught up by the time they start school," Northcutt said.
In other cases, the delay might be so slight that even parents -- particularly first-time parents -- may not recognize it. It may be a caused by visual, auditory, cognitive or motion impairments.
That's why Part C has a free screening process and one-point recognition. Once anyone calls Northcutt's office -- a neighbor, doctor, teacher or parent -- the wheels are set in motion. A call is put in to parents to discuss their concerns and an appointment is made for a preliminary screening.
If the preliminary screening indicates there may be a delay, a multidisciplinary screening takes place during which several therapists from several specialties check to determine the cause of the delay.
It may be that a child is malnourished, which is causing him to be sluggish or that poor hearing has impeded his speech development.
In any case, once the cause of the delay and its results are identified, Part C service coordinators have 45 days to put together an Individual Family Service Plan.
"With an infant, we try to look at the whole family," Northcutt said.
Services provided are also there for the whole family and can include respite care or tools to make caring for a child with a developmental or cognitive delay easier.
"Sometimes we just want to make the hardest part of (a parent's) day the easiest part," Northcutt said.
She tells of a client whose child hated taking a bath to the point that he made it a dangerous time. An occupational therapist created a bathtub support that kept the child sitting upright in a safe and padded area. Now the worst time of day is the best for that family because the child enjoys bath time with his sister.
"That's the kind of success story we like to see." Northcutt said. "Whatever makes the days easier. The goal is to meet the family's needs and to come to grips with whatever the child's disability is."
Services are free no matter what the family's financial status or citizenship status is. Some services include:
- Nutritional education
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Psychological therapy
- A service coordinator to link families with available services and funding
- Respite care
- Family training
- Health services
- Family support
Part C provides services to children at the earliest point in their lives so no windows of opportunity are lost.
"We're finding early intervention is crucial," Northcutt said.
The brain, she said, is a use-it-or-lose-it machine. Brain connections not used often enough are eliminated and children have very specific opportunities for learning certain things. The optimal time for learning foreign languages is when a child is 3 to 9 years old. For music, it's 3 to 10.
Northcutt said 30 clients she has in her four-county coverage area is less than half of those who qualify for the services Part C provides.
She doesn't want a single eligible child to miss out on the services they're entitled to.
If you suspect your child has a developmental delay, call Kathy at 871-1962 or 1-888-777-4041 to arrange a screening.
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.